The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron
Paperback: 236 pages
Publisher: Tarcher (December 27, 1999)
ISBN-10: 1585420093
ISBN-13: 978-1585420094

Braunbeck, via a friend (who in turn received it from somebody else), got a copy of The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron. I picked it up and started reading it.

I got about 20 pages into it, and started skimming. And then I put it down. And then I felt like ranting.

So, bearing in mind that I didn't finish the book, making this a largely suspect review, here's my take on the thing: this is a deeply fluffy book. It's trying really hard to compete with Writing Down the Bones and not really making it. Every chapter I read could be easily summed up in a single sentence ... "If you're feeling burned out, you should really go out and hit the museum or the theater to get some new sights and sounds in your head" -- my paraphrase of one of her chapters that went on for three or four pages and didn't really convey anything more useful than that summary sentence.

The book is not worthless. It does have a few good ideas scattered throughout. If you have no aspirations to be a professional writer and you're just trying to get yourself started on writing for your own purposes, you might find some useful stuff here. But if the author were a beautiful, jewel-toned ladybug, this book would still make me want to step on her.

It's one of those books that contains stuff that, if you don't know better, sounds awesome and nifty and shiny, but ultimately is just as likely to hinder beginning writers as it is to inspire them because it can put some fairly unrealistic notions into your head. Namely, she goes out of her way to try to show that writing is the veritable spring breeze across her Taos ranch, that it isn't hard, and it isn't lonely.

I gotta call bullshit on that one. Writing can be very hard and very lonely if you've got a deadline hanging over your head. And a lot of us who feel compelled to write are fundamentally lonely; we'd feel alienated and disconnected in the middle of a carnival. Even when our dearest loved ones are holding us in their arms, part of us may still feel that way. And if you're, you know, funny that way, and read this whole book and take it to heart when Special Author Lady says you needn't feel lonely when you write, yet you still do, this book can make you feel like a big ol' loser. Worse, it hasn't taught you anything real about getting past the loneliness, or, better yet, using it as grist for the mill.

Seriously. Y'all know I likes me some poetry and personal essays. But I threw up a little in my mouth when I read this, on page 148:

Your writing has by now stirred some of the deeper waters of your soul. Your deeper dreams and desires are more clear to you. The lacks and limitations of your current life stand out in bas relief. ... Set aside an hour's private writing time. Set a sacred atmosphere by lighting a candle, perhaps cuing up some expansive music (for me Tim Wheater's flute is an excellent Pied Piper).

Yeah. Show of hands, kids: how many of you working authors light a sacred candle and put on New Age flute music when you've got a 7,000 word story due in, uhm, four hours, a story that you must sell or you won't be able to make the electric bill? Anyone? Bueller ... Bueller?

I won't argue that incense or bubble baths or candles are inherently useless to a writer; little rituals that help you delineate between your writing and "other" work to get yourself in the right frame of mind can be a big help, sure. You could light a candle, or put on a cowboy hat, or pour yourself a cup of black coffee. Whatever works, works.

The thing that bugged me is that this book claims to be aimed at "anyone", but really seems to be written mostly for upper-class California women who are casting about for something to do in the hour between their yoga classes and lunch out with the girls. The examples and suggestions the author puts forth are quite upscale (candles, flute music, going to see live theater), costly, and not terribly in touch with the lives of people who've actually been marginalized growing up and left with the desire to express themselves but think it's only something wealthy white people with college degrees do. How in the nine hells is a high school dropout with three little kids in a two-bedroom trailer and a job at a factory supposed to set a sacred atmosphere, or relate to a writer who spends a chunk of the first part of the book gushing about the lovely view of her horse paddock from her antique oak desk? It's the blue-collar folks who would most benefit from a book about "the right to write", it seems to me. Because, seriously, if Mom and Dad put you through good private schools and college and now you're vaguely dissatisfied with your life in your 4-bedroom bungalow in Mill Valley and you feel as though you've been deprived of some artistic right ... you don't need this book so much as you need a spine transplant.

Ah well. The author is a television screenwriter and a painter, so her world is not a world most of us will ever share. She may simply be trying to sell books to people who want to live in her world rather than the one that actually exists for most of humanity.

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